The fall TV season may do wonders for sales of pizza and microwave popcorn, but it does jack-nothin’ for love. Why squander the cool weather and opportunities for couch-bound cuddling on The Nine or Men in Trees? Below are a few suggested movies for an autumn night’s romantic entertainment, whether your taste runs toward shared sniffles or cinematic foreplay.
All That Heaven Allows (1955) In which middle-aged widow Jane Wyman scandalizes her small town by hooking up with virile young gardener Rock Hudson, while director Douglas Sirk uses color the way musicals use song—as an explosion of barely suppressed emotion. (Fall leaves never looked this red, nor loveless interiors more blue.) Keep Kleenexes handy, especially when Wyman’s selfish grown kids drive away Rock and give her the only companion a woman her age needs: a TV set.
Bull Durham (1988) Yeah, yeah, everybody remembers Kevin Costner’s big monologue about slow wet kisses and William Blake and all that jazz: it’s the stagiest, least convincing moment in Ron Shelton’s otherwise sublime baseball comedy. I’m much more persuaded by the scene in which Costner and a never-hotter Susan Sarandon are making out, and in one practiced flick Costner unsnaps her garter—which Sarandon registers with a look that makes orgasm redundant. Men dream all their lives of attaining this level of sensual proficiency. Women simply hope they notice the garter belt.
Cruel Intentions (1999) Most people prefer Dangerous Liaisons, Stephen Frears’ coolly venomous filming of Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and indeed it is gripping adult entertainment. But somehow the plot—in which two debauched rivals make a wager over seducing an innocent—packs an even sharper sting with characters who are basically children, as in Roger Kumble’s underrated updating. Ryan Philippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar are the prep-school schemers, and Reese Witherspoon plays their prey: a teen who has publicly vowed abstinence, and thus constitutes an even greater prize.
The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) A wonderful whirling trap of a romantic melodrama, filmed by director Max Ophuls in silken, gliding camera moves as fate constructs a guillotine for the characters. A general’s wife (Danielle Darrieux) blithely pawns the earrings he gave her and pretends she lost them; unbeknownst to her, her husband discovers the ruse, buys back the earrings and gives them to his mistress—who in turn sells them to a baron (Vittorio De Sica). The baron, in turn, gives them to a woman with whom he has fallen in love—the general’s wife. Farce becomes tragedy as the characters discover the depth of their feelings, and the extent of their ability to act upon them. Worth seeing just for the montage of Darrieux and De Sica falling in love over a period of weeks, hiding their affair in public as one waltz blurs into another.
Edward Scissorhands (1990) Juvenile and morbid as the central conceit is—“Boo hoo, no one in your soulless suburb can love me because I’m a freak with scissors for hands!”—Tim Burton’s fairytale nevertheless pushes every romantic button a misunderstood teen has. Even if said teen is now 45. “Hold me,” whimpers cheerleader Winona Ryder. “I can’t,” says wet-eyed Johnny Depp. That’s the point: he can’t hold anybody. Can’t you see he’s got scissors for hands!
Morocco (1930) At a Foreign Legion outpost, spun by director Josef von Sternberg out of cobwebs and moonlight, cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich falls hard for legionnaire Gary Cooper—hard enough that, in the amazing last image, she follows him barefoot into the desert in a lust-struck trance, leaving the sand to swallow her high heels. Dietrich is at her most sexually ravenous, which is saying something; Cooper is a frisky beefcake, not the uptight, leathery cuss he’d be in his later Westerns. I don’t care if this was made in 1930: it’s like a dream you wake up from in sweat-soaked sheets.
Notorious (1946) One of the kinkiest, most perverse romances Alfred Hitchcock ever devised; needless to say, the kinks only make it hotter. Spy Cary Grant loves tarnished Ingrid Bergman, but not so much that he won’t pimp her out to get the (literal, uranium-loaded) dirt on Nazi collaborator Claude Rains. Hitchcock almost manages to make Grant seem more cold-blooded than Rains, but Grant has all the chemistry with Bergman—particularly during the legendary kissing scene that Hitchcock prolonged to defy censors.
Say Anything… (1989) Unlike most ’80s teen comedies, this hasn’t aged as grimly as Judd Nelson: it seems likely to retain its low-key charm for decades to come, mainly because John Cusack and Ione Skye enact first love as intensely, awkwardly and magically as most of us remember it. Since the rest of us could never think up a gesture as grandly passionate as Cusack holding aloft a boombox outside his girlfriend’s window, playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” we just cue up the scene. Which oughta count for something.
Two English Girls (1971) François Truffaut made a movie for almost every shade of romantic temperament—lyrical (Jules and Jim), comical (Stolen Kisses), madly obsessive (The Story of Adele H.), macabre (The Green Room)—but over the years none has stayed with me like this beautiful companion piece to Jules and Jim, which inverts the earlier film’s triangle of two men in love with the same woman. Jean-Pierre Léaud, who played Truffaut’s alter ego Antoine Doinel throughout his career, is the adventurous young Frenchman who woos two British sisters (Kika Markham and Stacey Tendeter), cannot choose between them, and so consigns them all to years of exquisite torment. A wallow in unrequited adoration for a chilly autumn day.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) Yes, it’s a musical; yes, every line of dialogue is sung in French. No, you will not be able to stop blubbering once it’s over, no matter how strongly you resist. Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo play young lovers who pledge to love each other forever—not realizing that, in a world racked by war and painful economic realities, forever is a very long time. The director, Jacques Demy, uses the color and floating camerawork of Hollywood musicals to evoke the piercing intensity of young love, yet he sees through its folly with affection and wisdom. It all leads to a snow-dusted Esso station on Christmas Eve, in a resolution that affirms the joys of mature love without slighting the memory of youthful infatuation. Watch it piled beneath the thickest quilt you own, in the arms of someone who understands the meaning of forever.